Injury Threshold Identified for Combat Sport Athletes

A press release for a new study carried out by members of the American Academy Of Neurology (AAN) reports that there appears to be a threshold at which head trauma or blows received during combat sports start to take their toll on brain function.  The AAN is an association of over 25,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals who are dedicated to promoting the highest quality neurologic care possible.     

The study looked at 43 mixed martial arts athletes and 35 boxers who had an average age of 29.  After undergoing tests to determine their memory and thinking skills and an MRI brain scan, the athletes were split into two groups: those who had been fighting for nine years or less and those with over nine years of experience.      

Researchers found that in both groups, “those with more years of fighting and more fights per year were more likely to have lower brain volumes in three areas of the brain.”  For those with less than nine years of fighting, though, no relationship existed between the years of fighting or number of fights per year and memory and thinking test results.  

However, the study found that for athletes with more than nine years of fighting experience, “those with more fights per year performed worse on the thinking and memory tests than those with fewer fights per year.”  This indicates that changes in memory and thinking begin to appear after fighters reach this nine-year threshold, despite changes in brain volume that can be found earlier.   

The press release reports that this head trauma, which causes memory and thinking problems, can also lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain.  According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE is a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.”  

The AAN press release explains that autopsy is the only way to diagnose CTE, though symptoms of the disease include aggression, memory loss, and difficulty thinking.  Other athletes at risk for developing CTE are football and hockey players.    

After identifying this brain damage threshold, doctors believe they can help athletes by introducing better guidelines to protect them.  Some options include fight limits or mandatory brain evaluations.  The results of this research will be presented at the AAN’s 64th Annual Meeting in New Orleans, which takes place April 21 through April 28, 2012.